Binning Brexit must be the start of the change that we need

by Jonathan Todd

In William Waldegrave’s admirably honest and bleakly comic memoir, he describes William Armstrong, the head of the civil service, suffering a nervous breakdown. Armstrong, when Waldegrave was working for prime minister Ted Heath, “talked apocalyptically of his control of the Blue Army in its war against the Red, then lay full length on the floor of Number Ten’s waiting room, at the feet of an astonished delegation of businessmen”.

“Could civil servant Olly Robbins prove Brexit’s unlikely hero?” asked a recent Financial Times profile. Of course, sadly, not. While we hope that the strain does not impact Robbins as greatly as Armstrong, Brexit is a joyless revolution, devoid of heroes.

Out of the crooked timber of Brexit, Immanuel Kant might have said, no straight thing was ever made. Nothing, as Jo Johnson stressed when resigning from government, has been fashioned from it to compare with the promises made in its name during the 2016 referendum.

Politics, eventually, catches up with policy. While Johnson’s departure may trigger bigger political events, it responds to a policy reality that has long been obvious: Theresa May is incapable of delivering a Brexit that won’t make us worse off and her Brexiter critics have no plausible policy for doing better. The political energy that pulses through Remain derives from a more coherent policy: staying in the EU via a People’s Vote, based on what is now known, not the false prospectus of two years ago.

The right policy is the right politics. Labour MPs in seats that voted for Brexit cannot advance a policy that combines Brexit with the brightest prospects for jobs and growth in these places. Because – as voters increasingly realise – no such policy exists, eroding the political case for accommodation with Brexit by these MPs. Especially when, among Labour voters, at least two-thirds in every constituency support another referendum.

The polling does not reveal a thirst for Lexit among Labour voters in industrial towns. Other voters in these seats may have more of a taste for Brexit – in many cases, for reasons far removed from the inclusion and internationalism that have traditionally characterised Labour. But – with every unfortunate story of redundancies attributed to Brexit – this taste is diminishing. In any case, while Brexit ought to be bigger than self-interested calculations, these voters are less crucial to the survival of Labour MPs than Labour voters.

From whom the message is clear: we want another say on the dud that we were sold.

No one any longer bothers to deny the defectiveness of Brexit. The case for persisting rests upon fulfilling 2016’s mandate (whatever that was). Or the fear of no deal, which, given the willingness of the prime minister to listen to the parliamentary majority against this, is misplaced.

“All of us want to be able to look our constituents in the eye and say that leaving the EU will work out fine, but more and more of us,” writes Johnson, “are now convinced we are heading for a poor outcome for the country.”

Labour MPs in all parts of the country must, surely, feel the same. Some of whom represent the kind of constituency depicted on a recent Labour party political broadcast, with its geographically-focused crushing of potential.

“The longest pay squeeze since the Napoleonic Wars arises,” according to Paul Collier, an economist at Oxford University, writing powerfully about such places in November’s Prospect, “because in too many places there’s nothing useful to do.”

These places need – to use Kevin Meagher’s phrase – practical radicalism. Change that is far-reaching and workable.

Neither the vassalage of May’s deal nor the chaos of no deal brings such. Brexit is, for Collier, a distraction. In fact, it may be much worse. Not only forestalling a focus upon the most disadvantaged places, but also bringing about outcomes – such as a shrunken national economy – that make it harder to address their challenges.

These places have suffered enough. If Brexit can be averted, giving them practical radicalism is an achievable, moral imperative. If it cannot, it will be doubly hard to do so.

When Waldegrave came under pressure for his part in the Poll Tax, he rebutted:

“What? Do you really think one lowly parliamentary under-secretary in the Department of the Environment could have orchestrated something like that? Ridiculous!”

There are, in contrast, no hiding places for MPs on Brexit. The Commons is too finely poised. Every vote counts.

“But the truth is,” Waldegrave concludes an eye-opening chapter on the least fondly remembered tax of the 1980s, “I do not believe it would have happened without me.”

We must hope that Brexit does not come to hang as heavy on the consciences of MPs as this episode does upon Waldegrave’s.

As Brexit is the wrong policy, the right politics is to vote against. But averting Brexit should only be the beginning of the practical radicalism.

20 years ago, the New Deal for Communities promised a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. Let’s bin Brexit and do the opposite: a neighbourhood strategy for national renewal.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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11 Responses to “Binning Brexit must be the start of the change that we need”

  1. Anne says:

    Yes, I agree with this article. Labour MPs must now do what is best for the country – following this insane Brexit is not it.
    I am sure many of us have watched the excellent film by Peter Jackson about the First World War. It certainly brought home the totally insanity of it. My grand father fought in this war. While watching Peter’s film I just thought it needed people on both sides to say stop – it is said that if Queen Victoria had been alive she would have done just that.
    Well it is now going to take some MPs to stand up and say stop. Those MPs who feel they are helping their constituents by continuing with Brexit are very misguided.

  2. Gordon says:

    Dream on, mate. There is almost zero evidence of buyer’s remorse on the part of Leave voters and quite a lot of ‘just get on with it’ resignation from the more democratically-minded segment of the Remain minority.

    Brexit will happen, for better and worse, and your energy would be better spent making it a success (or mitigating the harm, if you must) than engaging in a futile crusade to undo the referendum result.

  3. Vern says:

    You write about a coherent policy and political energy that pulses through Remain…..What coherent policy is that? Hopefully, not the constant flip flopping that Labour’s front bench have been arguing over. Please tell us what is Remains policy? After 2 years, despite the vast amount of lies pedalled by Remain, there is still no credible reason that i have heard that would convince me to stay in the EU.

    And this rather embarassing effort only seeks to enforce the resolve of Leavers.

    Keep em coming.

  4. Alf says:

    I think the Blairites are right about Brexit. The problem is that the voters find all of their other policy positions repellent and toxic – e.g. attacks on the unemployed and disabled, tuition fees, and back-door NHS privatisations. So I think the members will stick with Corbyn.

  5. John p Reid says:

    There was 3million unemployed under Thatcher, Tony Blair even suggested 20 years ago had labour won the 83 election to hat number could have doubled even without leaving the EEC if labour reversed the Thatcher trade union laws

    There were jobs in the 80’s , if people went to look for them , getting people on the dole wa a way of getting them off apprentaships

    The fear of job losses doesn’t worry brexiters be they Lexiters or working class Tories
    What Brexit represented was the political class in thr Labour Party reLising that they took the working class for granted!, 45% of SNP voters voted leave, estimated 50% of those voted labour up to 2005,
    The idea in Wales or the few South of England ex blue collar areas would forgive labour if we backed remain, is silly the Up north seats who still dislike the Fories because of the 80’s is dwindling ,

    Brexit is 134 days away, there maybe a election in .May and we’ll leave without a deal

    But once we leave labour has to accept that post austerity,the public want to have more a say in local issues the statist view on projects getting handouts for special groups are robbing Peter to .Give To Paul, and the public don’t want to hear about special advisors discussing vanity projects on educating the masses on culture and if anything Theresa MY will get the sympathy vote.

  6. Henrik says:

    It’s all very well the members sticking with Corbyn – it’s the electorate Labour should be thinking about, they’re the ones who need convincing that the Gentle Commie Terrorist-Hugging Grandad and his Joe-Stalin-Was-Great Shadow Chancellor are the dream team it wants in power.

  7. Simon says:

    “All very well the members sticking with Corbyn”

    Give them some positive reasons for picking a moderate instead and maybe they won’t.

    Stop blaming the members for following a guy who whether you love or hate him offered ideas…

  8. Anne says:

    Ken Clark is certainly right when he said this lot of Conservative ministers are the worst in his 50 years as an MP. Now we have a gang of 5 trying to bring down Teresa – lead by Andrea Leadson- o dear – I know we have to be politically correct in our comments but we in the north have a saying which sums up Mrs Leadson -‘as thick as two short planks.’

  9. John P Reid says:

    Simon people interpret Corbyn as they like
    Margaret Hodge has contempt for the blue collar working class, so I’ve met those who are treated like Dirt on council estates in Barking who support Tommy Robinson who like Corbyn
    I know middle class Blairites who Voted Tessa jowell for mayor , Stella Creasy for deputy who love the EU and are unaware of the SWP who have joined momentum who think Corbyn is pro the EU, they also like their former hero Margaret Hodge hold the working class in contempt’ think the working class who voted Brexit are thick and racist , and by calling the WC thick it will get them to see the error of their ways’ and they back Corbyn
    Blairites /Momentum two sides of the same coin

  10. Anne says:

    Intellect appears to be very much in short supply for these Brexiteers. Dominic Raab stated that he did not know the amount of trade which pasted between Dover and Calais, and behaved like a little school boy on the Andrew Marr program when confronted with this point – “I was new to the job’ I would of thought this information was a basic requirement for the job. Now he is favourite to replace Teresa. Is this really the best this Tory party can do. This Brexit situation just goes from bad to worse. What an absolute mess.

  11. Henrik says:

    @Simon – I don’t particularly care whether the membership is or isn’t in love with the terrorist-loving Magic Grandad, they’re already going to vote Labour, whatever. The key question for Labour is whether it can come up with an offer which will make normal people – i.e. not political junkies – vote for them in sufficient numbers and in the correct distribution to form a government.

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